pearls of wisdom from french polynesia



pearls of wisdom from french polynesia
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Discover the Secrets Behind These Much Sought-After Gems of the Sea
ecently, I traveled to French Polynesia and
received a crash course on everything I could
ever wish to know about the Poe Rava (Tahitian for “black pearl”). While on this rather luxurious
fact-finding mission, I cruised the atolls and inlets of
Bora Bora and two of its neighboring islands aboard a
yacht, experienced five-star luxury at one of the most
sumptuous resorts in the Pacific, and got a topnotch
education to boot.
Travel from the U.S. to Tahiti is best accomplished on Air Tahiti Nui, whose newly launched nonstop service from New York or Los Angeles to
Papeete is delightful, boasting top-drawer service,
flight attendants who look as though they were contestants in the Miss Tahiti pageant, full-reclining
sleeper seats in first class, and food that is excellent
even by non-airplane standards.
Next, I boarded the Ti’a Moana, one of two sister
yachts that make up Bora Bora Cruises Nomade
Yachting line. The vessel offers sumptuous appointments, attentive service, meticulous attention to
detail, and delicious food—perhaps that’s why A-listers such as Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen regularly rent it for private
excursions. We stopped
at a different atoll (or
“motu”) on Bora Bora,
Ta’a and Raitea every
day, wherein guests
could partake in massages on the white-sand
beaches, feed baby
sharks and rays, drink at a
floating bar and kayak up
a river to a spectacular
inland botanical garden.
I also checked out
the Bora Bora Nui resort,
a member of Starwood
Resort’s Luxury Collection that claims the
largest and most luxuriously decorated overthe-water bungalows in
the South Pacific. The
staff is very attentive, and
The Bora Bora Nui has the
most luxuriously decorated
over-the-water bungalows.
488 Ocean Drive March 2006
Clockwise from top: The Bora Bora Nui resort is
surrounded by majestic mountains and crystalclear waters; Robert Wan’s stunning choker
vividly displays the various hues of the Tahitian
pearl; a luxurious over-water suite at the Bora
Bora Nui.
you can jump into the lukewarm water from the dock
that juts straight out from your private bungalow or
feed the fish through the section of your floor constructed from Plexiglas that lifts for just such a purpose. Relaxed and feeling the sway of the Polynesian
island rhythm, I was ready for my education in pearls.
Prized for centuries by royalty, the aristocracy and
the seriously wealthy, the noble Tahitian
pearl has finally come out of its proverbial
shell. This celebrated gem has graced some
of history’s most exclusive necks, fingers, ears and
heads, including those of Catherine the Great of Russia, Elizabeth I of England and the Empress Eugénie of
France, who were among the first women to ornament themselves with these rare treasures. In the Middle Ages, many European nations even decreed that
their use was restricted solely to members of the aris-
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tocracy. But nowadays,
pearls are available to
anyone with the coins to
spend. Jewelers such as
Harry Winston, de Grisogono, Mauboussin, Cartier, Buccellati, Van Cleef &
Arpels, Fred and Damiani
all frequently work the
Tahitian pearl into their
designs. Tiffany & Co. has
even branched out with a
line of pearl boutiques
called Iridesse, now with
six locations (including
one in Boca Raton at
Town Center), and has
plans for more than 20
within the next five years.
Still, it’s important to understand the mythic
qualities and allure of this luminescent jewel: Coveted throughout the ages and around the world,
the pearl, a product of nature, is often seen as a
gift from the gods. According to Polynesian lore,
Tane—the god of harmony and beauty—
received Tahitian pearls, which were the first
examples of light, from the Creator.
Infatuation with the fascinating gem reached
the art world, too. A visit to any of the world’s
great museums will unveil repeated use of the
pearl in works by such great masters as Rembrandt, Rubens and Dali. And Jan Vermeer’s Girl
With a Pearl Earring portrays a large, pear-shaped,
semibaroque Tahitian pearl suspended from the
ear of its subject (in spite of the ivory South Sea
pearl erroneously gracing Scarlett Johansson’s
lobe in 2003’s film of the same name).
These magnificent gems owe their amazing
colors to the black-lipped pinctada margaritifera
oysters cultivated in the lagoons and atolls surrounding the islands of French Polynesia. It’s important to
note that when speaking of Tahitian pearls we mean
cultured pearls, which are classified according to color,
shape, size, luster and surface quality. While Tahitian
pearls are referred to en masse as black, in reality they
run a full gamut of colors, with a primary body color
and one or more overtone colors. The spectrum of the
Tahitian pearl runs from peacock (greenish black), silver and Tahitian gold (golden black) to the more exotic—and therefore more valuable—hues of lavender
(midnight blue) and cherry (dark burgundy).
Tahitian pearls come in four general shapes:
Round and semi-round pearls have less than two percent variation from the diameter, or between two percent and five percent variation from the diameter,
French Polynesia is the
world’s second-largest
exporter of cultured pearls.
490 Ocean Drive March 2006
Clockwise from top left: The six-foot-in-diameter chandelier hanging in
pearl emperor Robert Wan’s house boasts about 3,000 pearls; the Tahitian
circle pearl is highly sought-after by many contemporary jewelers; Angelina
Jolie wearing the fabled Tahitian pearl.
pearls are fairly symmetrical
but have at
least one axis
of revolution
and can be
subcategorized as drop,
button, pear or oval; baroque pearls are those with
irregular shapes; and circle, or ringed, pearls have
more than one third of their surface covered with
streaks or rings that run perpendicular to the axis of
Pearls are also measured by size, according to the
gem’s smallest diameter, and typically range from
eight millimeters to 14 millimeters. Occasionally, they
run even larger: World-record-sized Tahitian pearls
boasting 21- to 27-millimeter diameters broken down
by category are on display at the Robert Wan Museum
of the Pearl in Papeete, French Polynesia’s capital.
As exacting as this classification process seems,
Tahitian pearls were noticeably unclassified before
two defining moments in their history. In 1976, the
Gemological Institute of America (GIA) officially recognized the natural color of Tahiti’s cultured pearls. Then
in 1989, the International Confederation of Jewelry, Silverware, Diamonds, Pearls and Stones agreed to officially identify the gem as the “Tahiti cultured pearl.”
And cultured they are. The five-step farming process
includes collecting, breeding, grafting, culturing and
harvesting. Of every 1,000 oysters that make it to the
grafting stage, only 250 pearls with any commercial
value will emerge, and just 20 of these will be considered perfect.
French Polynesia is the world’s second-largest
exporter of cultured pearls—behind only Japan, which
should be no surprise considering that it was Kichimatsu Mikimoto who first harvested cultured pearls
and then patented his techniques (in 1905 and 1908,
respectively). Later, the man now known as Tahiti’s
pearl emperor—Robert Wan—would study under
Mikimoto and sell his entire first harvest to the jewelry
pioneer. Today, Wan is responsible for more than 40
percent of the exported pearls, routinely holding
annual auctions in Kobe and Hong Kong. During my
fact-finding mission, Wan invited me to his home for
dinner, and I was amazed at the luxurious ways in
which he has surrounded himself with his bounty:
Every utensil sports a 10-millimeter black pearl at its
base, and a roughly six-foot-in-diameter chandelier
hanging from his living-room ceiling is comprised of
approximately 3,000 pearls.
Of course, Tahitian pearls are generally meant to
be worn, and that means caring for the ebony jewels is
of the utmost importance, particularly since they easily
scratch—they register just three out of 10 on the hardness scale. So always store your pearls alone in a soft
jewel sack and avoid contact with cleaning fluids, perfumes or anything corrosive or acidic. A pearl can also
crack if kept too long in a sealed plastic bag or locked
in a safe.
In the sage words of my mother, “Pearls should
be the last thing you put on and the first thing you
take off.” I just hate it when she’s right.